“Stop acting like four year olds,” we often tell our high school students in the library. We might say this in exasperation, but in reality, the brain that is developing inside their big, tough, high school bodies is still quite childlike.
What if, instead of bemoaning the youthful outbursts of our teen students, we embraced this quality and created a new style of instruction to capture and celebrate the wonder that still exists in a child’s imagination?
Our society is undergoing a period of rapid change. In response to mass digitization and the reduction of many jobs to menial labor status, a new movement has risen up to celebrate the pure joy of craftsmanship. The maker movement is playful and serious at the same time; the best play, one quickly discovers, is quite serious indeed. Makers are driven by their own desire to learn and explore, discover how things work, and see how they can modify and extend objects into new forms. Being a maker is about self-directed learning and community sharing of knowledge.
In short, the maker movement is all that is great about preschool learning implemented at a more adult level.
Consider the Reggio Emilia–style of preschool instruction. This school of thought that emerged from a factory town in Italy places a strong emphasis on play as a pathway for students to explore and learn in a child-directed environment. The role of the teacher in Reggio Emilia is to stage the learning space with resources and materials that will engage the child and invite further learning through questions. Similarly, a maker space is carefully constructed to provide materials and tools that invite learning and exploration. Making is, at its heart, play-based learning.
One incredibly successful way to implement play-based learning in K–12 content areas is through games. Games provide a structure for play with an agreed-upon rule set, end goal, and modality of interaction. This framework allows players to more quickly and easily engage with the content of the play without having to build up the entire world in which the play happens.
Consider a first playdate between two children: time is spent negotiating the roles and establishing parameters of each interaction. “Let’s pretend that we are taking care of animals at a zoo,” one player might say. The other player might want to include magical creatures, such as unicorns, and so the play must evolve to accommodate a modified structure—hopefully without tears. Rules, mechanisms, the pieces in the box; all of these elements that make up a game provide the structure for the players from the outside to help new players integrate into a shared play world faster.
Or, we can ignore the established structure of the game and create new play experiences just using the pieces and some of the mechanisms from the original game. This is the power inherent to tabletop board and card games as compared to many electronic games.
An expert teacher can manipulate these tangible games to create an intentional instructional moment that directly addresses a learning objective. In this way, we aren’t just playing games in the classroom, but rather using the game as another type of curriculum-aligned instructional resource. You can do this in some electronic games; Civilization has long been used in classrooms, but customizing Civilization requires coding in Python. We can easily modify rules in a tabletop game to simplify game play or stack the deck to explore a potential outcome. We can take the cards or other objects from the box and use them to inspire research or writing.
If this starts to sound like a lot more work than play, don’t worry. Based on almost a decade of success in our game library at the School Library System of the Genesee Valley (NY) Educational Partnership, Brian Mayer and I are developing resources to help share best practices. Game selections are aligned to curriculum areas and grade levels on our Play Play Learn site along with teaching and learning guides for some games. I also wrote a series of books on “Teaching Through Games” (Rosen, 2015) to provide unit and lesson plans for a play-based approach to different topics for middle and high school students.
The first five volumes in the “Teaching Through Games” series include a mix of two styles. The titles on the Underground Railroad and the American Revolution focus on a single, big game with additional custom scenarios and games for support as part of a five-lesson unit. The books on teaching secondary science, computer programming concepts, and financial literacy offer a review of four games each with two lesson plans. Building on what librarians naturally do, the books extend the games to include discussion questions, writing prompts, related primary source readings, and assessment information.
The goal of this series is to provide an opportunity for all teachers to leverage the power of play-based learning. Preschools have long shown the potential for melding play and learning; it is time for our school programs to explore this area as well. Whether it is through a maker space or a game library that provides new resources for teachers looking to engage students in content areas, a play-based approach has much to offer even for students who are way too big to be still acting like four year olds.
Christopher Harris is the Director of the School Library System for the Genesee Valley (NY) Educational Partnership and editorial director of Play Play Learn. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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